Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Ying Zhang looks for the person behind the history

The Chinese History chair has a long, rich history within Leiden University. Since 1 February, this position has been held by Ying Zhang. ‘Leiden University brings together a legendary range of Asian knowledge.’

Zhang has a Joint PhD in Gender Studies and History. Her research is therefore located at the intersection of these two disciplines: ‘In my work, I mainly look at the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the political culture of that era,’ she says. ‘To do this, it’s essential that you can put a face to the people who lived at that time. I do this by looking at the social relations in that period. How did political figures deal with issues like gender and family life during the Ming dynasty?’

Zhang also finds the answer to these questions in art and non-conventional sources. ‘But it’s important not to think only in terms of ‘great art’, such as paintings and architecture,’ she explains. ‘Individual love poems, calligraphy and diaries can also be used as primary sources.’ Studying political culture in this way allows us to better understand change and continuity in Chinese governance over a long period of time.


Zhang says the results of this show that Chinese history is still relevant today. ‘Compared with modern China, many things have changed, but you can still recognise historical resonance. For example, there’s the administrative culture, which even today is concerned about the best way to govern such a large country, or the best way to handle relations between state and religion. Questions like these help us to gain a better understanding of present-day China and to learn more about the country’s current political and social systems.’

Curious about people

Asked what she’s most looking forward to as a full professor, Zhang answers without hesitation: ‘The students’ curiosity! Leiden has a good reputation for this discipline, and this is reflected in everyone’s eagerness to learn. In my classes, I want to focus this interest on the people behind the historical source. I teach students to look at shared human experiences. I do this, for example, by teaching the students to imagine the many ways in which the Netherlands and China can be compared and studied together. It’s important that students actively engage with history, because then a previously unknown history can really come alive.’ She hopes to inspire and encourage students to continue the Dutch Sinologist tradition, a unique voice in global China studies.

This website uses cookies.  More information.